(Welcome to Videodrome. A recurring column plumbing the depths of vintage and contemporary cinema – from cult, exploitation, trash and grindhouse to sci-fi, horror, noir, documentary and beyond.)
“Gravel, stone, marble, and straight lines marked out rigid spaces. Surfaces without mystery. It seemed, at first glance, impossible to get lost here – down straight paths, between the statues with frozen gestures and the granite slabs, where you were now already getting lost, forever, in the calm night, alone with me.” – Last Year at Marienbad, 1961
In 1961, Alain Resnais released L’Année dernière à Marienbad (released stateside as Last Year At Marienbad) to mixed reviews. The film was refused entry from Cannes but won the Golden Lion at the 1961 Venice Film Festival. It was championed by Greek filmmaker Ado Kyrou in his 1963 book, Le Surrealisme au Cinema, while also securing a spot in Harry Medved’s The Fifty Worst Films Of All Time. In his Great Movie Ledger, Roger Ebert praised its “command of tone and mood…its austere visual beauty.” In her review, Pauline Kael called it a “high-fashion experimental film, the snow job at the ice palace…back at the no-fun party for non-people.” To this day, Last Year At Marienbad continues to polarize. For some, it remains a groundbreaking work of cinema, endlessly influential. For others, it’s a feature-length version of an emotionless perfume commercial, lost in pseudo-artistry.
Last Year at Marienbad is a film without a home. It exists within a grey area of European cinema, which further complicates comparative analysis. Although it was released during the French New Wave, it lacks the gritty “cinéma vérité” style of concurrent films such as Goddard’s Une Femme East Une Femme (1961), instead embracing rigid and ornate imagery. In its exploration of memories, it shares similar themes to La Jetée (1962), but presents space and time as malleable; there is no clear distinction between past, present, and future. It plays with the hallmarks of surrealist cinema (nonlinear sequencing, discordant sense of place, rejection of dramatic psychology) that began in the 1920s with Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel films such as Un Chien Andalou (1929) and L’Age d’Or (1930), but Last Year At Marienbad has a cloak of high-fashion glossiness that negates its surrealistic predecessors. It boasted a $500,000 budget, giving it a polished studio look not present in either new wave or surrealist films of the time.
The loose plot (emphasis on “loose”) revolves around the relationship of a man and woman who may or may not have fallen in love the year prior. As they traverse the grounds of an opulent hotel, the man tries to convince the woman of their romantic affair the previous summer, although the woman has no recollection of this happening. Much like Resnais’ previous film, Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959), the main theme permeating Last Year at Marienbad is memory. While Hiroshima Mon Amour focuses on the deceptiveness of memory as an unreliable narrator, Last Year At Marienbad examines the way that memory can manipulate events, reconstructing the past based on our perspicacity. Memories are not what happened, but how we choose to remember what happened, and in our choices we relinquish reality.
Throughout a series of disjointed fragments, dismantling continuity and operating within the realm of dream logic, Last Year at Marienbad crisscrosses through flashbacks that embrace the enigmatic nature of dreams and memories. It presents time and space as fluid streams of consciousness, often bleeding into each other and upsetting our perception of what is real and what is imagined, what is past and what is present. The discombobulated chronology produces a state of temporary amnesia. It’s hypnotic, atmospheric, and unconventional, like a jigsaw puzzle missing crucial pieces to form the entire picture.
Resnais was hoping to recreate a “certain style of silent cinema.” He asked Kodak if they could supply him with a black and white stock that would “halo” or “bloom” to recreate the diffused look of films from the silent era (the 35mm film was processed with Dyaliscope, a form of CinemaScope from France). Most of the dresses in the film were designed by Coco Chanel, and Resnais was adamant about the specificities of the costuming. Because of the unprecedented budget, Resnais had the luxury to obsess over these micro and macro visual details, which boldly introduce themselves right away.
The opening tracking shots introduce us to grandiose locations and lavish costuming. We glide through an airless hotel, watching its aristocratic guests behave with stifling artifice. Right away, we sense that something isn’t right; an intangible feeling that the footage is haunted. But it’s also so beautiful to look at, the frames filled with geometric symmetry and razor-sharp angles. The cinematography and production design is stunning, layered with subtle illusions that build upon the film’s muted dissonance.
The most notable example of this is a wide shot from the terrace of the hotel, looking out into the courtyard. A handful of well-dressed guests are strategically placed, framed by triangular hedges. All of the guests cast long shadows on the ground, yet the triangular hedges – much larger than the guests – have no shadows. This was achieved by painting the guest’s “shadows” on the ground in front of where the actors stood, and the hedges were flat cut-outs made by the production team. It’s these kinds of shots that inform the mystery of the film. While our brain may not pick up on it right away, it subconsciously recognizes this place as unnatural, beyond our realm of reality. And in one of many striking images, Resnais forces us to ask, “Is this a dream?”
Much of Last Year At Marienbad’s hyper-stylization is owed to Sacha Vierny’s methodical cinematography (Vierny worked with Resnais on Hiroshima Mon Amour, as well as Luis Buñuel on Belle de Jour (1967) amongst others) and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s screenplay. Shots are composed to a point of artificiality, camera movements are lethargic, creating atmospheres that feels extrinsically clinical. Within these frigid frames are characters shrouded in secrecy, speaking to each other in cryptic dialogue, recalling surface-level memories of objects, clothes, and environments that may or may not exist. Underneath Resnais’ icy direction, the combination of Vierny’s hypnagogic camera and Robbe-Grillet’s ambiguous story creates absolute disorientation, and we find our pre-conceived notions of plot, character, structure, conflict, and resolution – all the essential elements that we’ve come to expect from film – flipped upside down; a maze of dead ends and false leads as opposed to storytelling techniques. Last Year At Marienbad purposefully avoids explanation at every turn, making it simultaneously alienating and enticing.
Because the film offers no certain conclusions, it’s sparked much debate over the past sixty years. What does it all mean? One of the theories is that all of the characters are ghosts, existing in a purgatory of infinite regression. They are stuck in the hotel forever, experiencing time and place within the non-linear confines of the spirit world. It’s also believed that Last Year At Marienbad is a modern-day adaptation of Orpheus and Eurydice, two characters from Greek mythology. In the myth, Orpheus attempts to resurrect his dead lover (Eurydice) by traveling to the underworld to make a deal with Hades. Hades grants Orpheus the resurrection of Eurydice on one condition: while escorting Eurydice from the underworld, Orpheus must walk in front of her and not look back until they have reached the land of the living. Orpheus does as instructed, but in the last stretch of the journey, he panics. He confuses his location in the underworld to be the land of the living, and looks back at Eurydice, thus trapping her in the underworld forever. In regards to Last Year At Marienbad, this would make the hotel the underworld, the man Orpheus, the woman Eurydice, and the husband figure Hades.
Another speculation is that the film is Resnais’ commentary on the European upper-class in-between WWI and WWII. Resnais’ films before Last Year at Marienbad were both politically charged: Night In Fog (1956) is a harrowing documentary about the Nazi concentration camps, and Hiroshima, Mon Amour is a love story about a French-Japanese couple affected by the dropping of the atomic bomb. With his political sensibility in mind, many believe that Last Year at Marienbad (which gives no definitive sense of time, no sense of a world beyond the hotel) is Resnais’ critique of the upper class and their ignorance of the geopolitical situation in Europe before WWII.
Although technically a French New Wave film, Marienbad lacks the hand-held documentarian ethos of the new wave. And although it’s within the canon of surrealist cinema, its chilling tone is more aligned with a gothic ghost story than the fantasticality of the subconscious mind. With glacial pacing, splintered editing, and repetitious dialogue, it strikes a unique balance between the aestheticism of avant-garde abstractions and highfalutin chicness. It’s a film that deals with being out of time and out of place, which is ironic because Last Year At Marienbad exists within the ethereal lines between new wave and surrealism, in and of itself a film forever out of time and out of place. | e hehr